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The last straw: Despite bans on single-use plastics, we're making more than ever

Insights

Fossil fuel companies continue to make mind-boggling amounts of new, single-use plastic while doing almost nothing to reuse what already exists, a new analysis says.

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The latest Plastic Waste Makers index says despite growing consumer concern and regulation, the world’s plastic waste problem is getting worse, not better.

The index – published on Monday by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s philanthropic Minderoo Foundation – says the world generated 139 million metric tonnes of single-use plastic waste in 2021.

That’s 6 million metric tonnes more than in 2019, or close to an extra 1kg of plastic rubbish for every human on the planet.

Almost all of it was made from fossil fuels that are driving the climate change crisis, and almost all of it was new, or virgin plastic.

“Even while public and political awareness of the plastics problem has increased markedly, it has so far failed to translate into meaningful impact on virgin polymer production,” the report says.

“The top 20 petrochemical companies have collectively shown little progress and have a vested interest in maintaining the regulatory status quo. It will take significant leverage from governments to shift the largest global petrochemical companies to a different trajectory.”

Most of the major petrochemical companies that make plastic – including the top three, US-based ExxonMobil, China’s Sinopec, and the US-based Dow – are using barely any recycled plastic waste as feedstock for new polymers.

Even the two best performers – Taiwan’s Far Eastern New Century, and Thailand’s Indorama Ventures – only managed 11 and six per cent respectively.

“Recycling has the potential – along with reduce and reuse – to play an important role in solving both the waste and climate crises, but its contribution is currently negligible,” the report says.

“From 2019 to 2021, growth in the mass of single-use plastics from virgin polymer outpaced that from recycled feedstocks by a factor of 15 to one.”

That’s because it’s almost always cheaper to produce new plastics than to reuse or recycle them.

Forrest says a fundamentally different approach is needed to start turning the tap off on new production.

He’s says a levy should be applied to the price of every kilogram of plastic polymer produced with fossil fuels.

“We need financial incentives that encourage re-use and recycling and the build of new, critical infrastructure,” he says.

The report also says investors and financial institutions should dump their stakes in companies planning to build more plants to churn out fossil fuel plastics.

Almost 100 such facilities came online in the two years to 2021, with a combined capacity of 15 million metric tonnes.

Casey Clark is the president and chief investment officer of Rockefeller Asset Management and says the analysis shows how plastic production is undermining ambitions to reach net zero emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions from single-use plastics were equivalent to approximately 450 million metric tonnes of carbon – more than the United Kingdom’s total greenhouse gas emissions, an analysis showed.

“As awareness grows and the potential for regulation increases, the implications for investors seeking to create long-term shareholder value becomes more apparent,” Mr Clark says.

Meanwhile, the point at which the production of virgin, single use plastics will peak is still a distant milestone, the analysis says.

“The plastic waste crisis is intensifying and is going to get significantly worse before we see an absolute year-on-year decline in virgin single-use plastic consumption.”

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